DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
SO CLOSE TO PARADISE (Biandan, guniang) (director/writer: Wang Xiaoshuai; screenwriter: Pang Ming; cinematographer: Yang Tao; editors: Liu Fang/Yang Hong Yu; music: Liu Lin; cast: Shi Yu (Dongzi), Guo Tao (Gao Ping), Wang Tong (Ruan Hong), Wu Tao (Su Wu); Runtime: 90; First Run Features; 1998-China)

 
"A damsel-in-distress noirish melodrama."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A damsel-in-distress noirish melodrama that failed to resonate with me. The film was shot in 1995 by the radical underground "Sixth Generation" filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai (The Days/Frozen), but was shelved by its producers until it got the green light for its 1998 release from the Chinese censors after re-editing and re-shooting. It's a minimalist work cowritten by Pang Ming and the director Wang Xiaoshuai, that is acted by nonprofessionals and was filmed by using a downbeat bluish shade of coloring that gave it its noir look.

The film centers around two rubes from the same country village who migrated to the hectic city along the Yangtze River, Wuhan, to get in on the economic boom in the big city. The innocent teen called Dongzi (Shi Yu) narrates the tale in a doomed voice. The newly arrived migrant is satisfied just being a lowly shoulder pole carrier, doing a hard day's worth of labor by the docks. He is mentored by the twentysomething Gao Ping (Guo Tao), as the two live in the same shabby place by the waterfront. But Gao dreams of becoming rich by illegal means either as a scam businessman or a gangster -- claiming he's not suited for manual labor.

Another small-time punk Su Wu cheats Gao out of the scam money in a deal gone sour and disappears. Gao has seen him before with a pretty Vietnamese singer, Ruan Hong (Wang Tong), who works in a nightclub where there is prostitution. Gao drags Dongzi to the nightclub to hear the Vietnamese singer, and when they follow her home Gao tries to get her to tell where Su Wu is -- but she refuses. The two then kidnap her and Gao rapes her, and she soon falls in love with Gao. But he's obsessed with finding the gangster who cheated him, and begins to ignore her when she refuses to talk. Meanwhile the timid Dongzi has developed a crush on her, but does not admit this to anyone.

At last when Ruan leaves him Su Wu's phone number, Gao tracks the punk down and kills him when he refuses to cough up the missing dough. This gets the crime boss involved, as he puts the word out he wants Gao for taking his girl Ruan and killing his man Su Wu. The police are also looking to arrest Gao for the murder.

When Gao disappears, Dongzi is left alone in the city without a friend. Ruan is taken back by her pimp boss and resumes her career as a singer and bargirl.

What obviously bothered the Chinese authorities is that the director's view of Shanghai is bleak. The urban center though advertising an economic boom, seems to be also suffering from corruption and an ugly form of materialism.

This was Wang Xiaoshuai's first officially recognized film in China, the others were underground and never seen in China. The film gets bogged down into trying to be like a Hollywood gangster film, as it fails otherwise to be a moving portrait of the three lost souls trying to survive in an alien place. Ruan only wants to make it as a legitimate singer and find love. Dongzi is content to just be working and having a place of his own. These two are survivors. The most ambitious one is Gao, but he's a screw up and does not survive. I don't know what moral to draw from the tale of these unhappy workers, as the only impression I'm left with is that Wuhan looks like a gloomy city which has an underbelly of crime activity due to those who are impatient with the city's claims of materialism and the government's failure to have institutions in place to help the workers from being exploited.

REVIEWED ON 3/16/2002     GRADE: C -

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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